When I travel these great United States for business or recreation, I make it a point to always be aware of the history of whatever sites, locales, and points of interest that I’m visiting. I’m all the more attuned, lest there be a Vice Presidency-related landmark that warrants my tribute.
I won’t necessarily arrange my itinerary specifically to grace one of these noteworthy stops. Certainly, I’ll always be interested in learning what sorts of misdeeds transpire whenever you mix a Vice President’s aide-de-camp, his blacksmith, a half-dozen pistols, and a flagon of okra wine, and breathing the air where it happened more than a century ago. However, if I’m unable to seamlessly weave it into my trip plan, it may not make the cut, as this isn’t the kind of detour that an airline, an uninvested travelling partner, or an employer would be inclined to understand and excuse. (Besides, I probably have a chapbook or videotaped re-enactment of it somewhere in my archives.)
Gravesites are another matter entirely. They exist on a higher plane. Respects must be paid, even if it requires an excessive, inconvenient, distasteful, or even dangerous deviation from an otherwise sober and sensible travel schedule. This might involve something as foolhardy as navigating a brutal 15-year snowstorm outside Topeka threatening to close every major thoroughfare in a three-state area.
Or staying a night in East Baltimore.
Granted, I didn’t have to stay in East Baltimore. I wanted to be as close to Fells Point as possible, though, so that my only choice for an afternoon beer wouldn’t be the Cheesecake Factory in Towson.
Unfortunately, I may have ventured too far east in Baltimore.
That’s very easy to do in Baltimore, incidentally—as is too far west, too far north, and too far south, and it’s usually distances of less than a football field before you realize you’ve overstepped. And then, it’s not necessarily too late, but the sudden change in circumstances will capture your attention before you can even begin to realize what you’ve done. For this reason, it might be cynical but not inaccurate when a hotel proclaims on its website, “Walking distance to [insert popular tourist destination in safe neighborhood here]!” Just know that your route may entail walking briskly, or even taking evasive action, possibly at a dead sprint. On the other hand, it was for circumstances like these that room service and hotel lobby bars were invented, as long as you don’t mind club sandwiches with dry shoestring fries and brunch buffet bacon, and paying $6.00 a bottle for the lowest common denominator local equivalent of Budweiser.
So, I was indeed within walking distance of Fells Point, and probably would have had plenty of flashing red and blue to light my way had I chosen to make the trek down to the Harbor my first night in town.
Instead, I spent my first night in the hotel bar, drinking $6.25 bottles of Yuengling and waiting to take my dinner of “Authentic Maryland Crab Cakes” up to my room. (I can’t remember for sure, but it’s possible that only “Authentic” was in quotes, or that “Crab” or “Cakes” were spelled with a “K”. Whatever the case, it was clear that I was not ordering authentic Maryland crab cakes.)
There was nothing to recommend partaking of the Charm City nightlife on this particular evening, in any case. I didn’t come here simply for Fells Point. I had come to pay my respects to one of America’s most misunderstood statesmen.
Spiro Theodore Agnew was our 39th Vice President of the United States. He exploded out of nowhere—elevating from the relatively obscure position of Baltimore County Executive to the American Presidency’s heir apparent in less than 28 months. In Richard Nixon’s 1968 running mate vetting, Agnew was on virtually no one’s short list, or long list, or list.
One can only imagine the gravitas and single-minded intensity that must have been in the air in those wee small hours at Miami’s Hilton Plaza, in August 1968, when Nixon and his team were deeply engaged in selecting his running mate. This would be his first Presidential Decision, anointing the man who would share the ticket with him, whom he would entrust to carry on his legacy after his triumphal presidency. Finch, Reagan, Rockefeller, Hatfield, Percy, Lindsay, Volpe, Baker, Romney—his confidantes thoughtfully reviewed the pros and cons of the brightest lights of the Republican party. This was not a decision to be entered into capriciously.
It was their boss’ name at the head of the ticket, though, and the buck stopped with him. “Call Agnew,” he told his convention floor manager, Rogers Morton.
No one said as much out loud, but neither would they have been blamed by the rest of the brain trust if they accidentally blurted out to the boss, “Jesus, are you drunk?”
“Agnew who?” would have been a fairer question. His name hadn’t come up when Nixon had polled the leading state luminaries of the party. It was only after Nixon tapped Agnew to place his name in nomination, and speak to the convention to that end, that the Maryland governor’s name appeared on anyone’s radar. Presumably the only reason Nixon asked Morton to reach out was the Maryland congressman’s relative familiarity with the Old Line State’s governor.
When Nixon announced his choice to the assembled reporters, there was an audible gasp in the room. Agnew himself would say he was “stunned.”
Nixon would defend his choice, saying “There is a mysticism about men…a quiet confidence. You look a man in the eye and you know he’s got it—brains. This guy has got it. If he doesn’t Nixon has made a bum choice.”
More likely, he didn’t want to be outshined by a Reagan or a Rockefeller, and his preferred choice of heading into the general election without a running mate was a practical and historical non-starter. Friend and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond was probably speaking with a more credible candor than the future President when he told a curious Nelson Rockefeller that Agnew was “the least worst” of Nixon’s candidates.
The Washington Post had a less succinct but more eloquent take on the selection, calling it “the most eccentric political appointment since Caligula named his horse a consul.”
It was an eccentric selection indeed, and Agnew did not disappoint. With his sudden rebirth from moderate Republican governor to attack dog for the man who would be the next President of the United States, it wasn’t long before Agnew chiseled his way into the granite of American culture—first for his improbable selection, then for his incendiary, alliterative Pat Buchanan-/William Safire-penned oratory (“nattering nabobs of negativism”…”supercilious sophisticates”…”vicars of vacillation”), and finally for being the first Vice President to resign his office, on allegations of accepting kickbacks in brown bags of cash in his Vice Presidential office.
And just like that, the reign of Maryland’s erstwhile favorite son came to a tarnished end. He left office in disgrace, followed months later by his boss, and surely haunted by what had now become the cruel joke of his once heir apparent status and untold thousands of “Spiro of ‘76” buttons hidden from the light of day in warehouse storage or landfills around the country. He would pen a book alleging the scapegoating and conspiracies behind his demise, and then vanish from the American consciousness until his sudden death from leukemia in 1996, and then vanishing again.
Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens isn’t exactly a potter’s field—the remains of Johnny Unitas are interred there—but neither is it Arlington, or Woodlawn. It isn’t what you expect for the final resting place of a man who once captured the imagination of the entire country and however briefly was being seriously considered as the next President of the United States.
Yet, this is where Spiro Theodore Agnew was laid to rest, and where I felt duty-bound to visit him, doff my cap, and salute him for his service to his country, no matter how errant it was.
I took Dulaney Valley Road and went left into Towson, past Goucher College, the Institute for Jewish & Christian Studies, and Towson University, and up near the mall on the hill, pulling in for a coffee, and parking next to something called “The Fresh Market.” It caught my eye because I’ve been in markets like this in tonier sections of Portland— a boutique version of Whole Foods, with its soft lighting, lots of Prius and Smart Cars parked outside, mandolins and chamber music playing on the overhead speakers inside, a corner of the store devoted to custom bouquets of exotic flowers.
This is where my inexperience as a mourner showed itself, embarrassingly. I couldn’t expect to properly pay tribute to anyone dearly departed without flowers. And in this instance, not just any flowers would do. I was in Maryland, offering my respects to one of Maryland’s most prominent statesmen. The only appropriate bouquet for occasion would be the official flower of the state he once ran, where he earned his political stripes, and whom he represented on the national stage, for good and ill–the Rudbeckia hirta, or Black-Eyed Susans.
This is the state flower of Maryland, though–a flower for the commoner, the lunch bucket carrier, the pork chop and canned beer crowd that stood as one and cheered when their governor and the workingman’s friend, Spiro Agnew, made his improbable ascension to the White House. This wasn’t the kind of flower you would find at “The Fresh Market.”, with its spirulina dispensers and arugula smoothies made to order, and ginger-infused dried zucchini “snack chips” for $12.99 per 4-ounce bag.
I had my coffee and got down to the serious business of the Black-Eyed Susans. Local guidebooks tell of the ubiquity of the Black-Eyed Susan in Maryland—you can pick them in random lawns, parks, roadsides. Yes, this was a commoner’s flower, but I didn’t want to go that common. Besides, pulling to the side of the road in your rental car and picking flowers might be de rigeur in a pastoral wayside like Williamsport, but in Towson, you’re likely to be reported; in Baltimore Proper, probably worse.
In the interests of being a respectful tourist, I would always prefer to add to the local weal rather than be perceived as barging in and taking what I pleased. I found Radebaugh Florists, hiding in plain sight in a residential neighborhood in Towson.
Another good reason not to run up and down the streets and countryside of Baltimore and surrounding area: My new florist informed me that Black-Eyed Susans were not in season in late April.
She brought me into their cooler to look, as there may have been some left over from earlier in the year, but certainly not enough for a full, properly respectful bouquet.
Marylanders are nothing if not resourceful, though—just ask the British who thought they could run roughshod over Fort McHenry and wound up getting knee-capped by a scrapping band of Old Line rabble.
We couldn’t come up with a full bouquet of Black-Eyed Susans, but every good state flower should have a workable understudy and any talented florist will know how to improvise on the fly. I let her escort me into the back and have at the closest facsimile, which were Gerber Daisies. It was Wednesday, so they were half-off, too! That was a win for everyone, including the Agnews—I was helping the local economy of the late governor’s former state, without out too much out of my wallet, and it would surely be a special day for him: This wasn’t a man with streets and airports named after him in the state he once led–when was the last time someone paid their respects much less left flowers are his gravestone?
My three-dollar bouquet in hand, I was off to find the last stop in Spiro Theodore Agnew’s American Journey.
The phone guided me to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, just down the road in Timonium. I knew from the Internet that Spiro and Mrs. Elinor were interred in “The Garden of the Last Supper”, but Dulaney Valley is as tasteful as it is sprawling, so patience was required as I walked the grounds, searching.
Finding the Garden was the easy part. Most of the stones are inlaid, and by the overgrowth, tarnished markers, and the pallor of benign neglect, I suspected that, like supper clubs and bridge parties, the Garden of the Last Supper’s best days were about four or five decades behind it.
After a plodding seventeen minutes of walking up and down the rows overgrown with bluegrass, rye, and fescue, I decided I needed to turn to the Internet for assistance. I was pleasantly surprised to find GPS coordinates for the grave of our late departed 39th Vice President and his wife: 39.45742, -76.61975. I followed the GPS map on my phone for a few moments and…
A moment of reverence. Then I got to my historian’s work, capturing the moment. I snapped photos of myself from different angles, putting the flowers in front of me and trying to capture it all in the frame. All the while I was cognizant of the traffic coming through the cemetery. Viscerally, I felt this was inappropriate on a number of levels. The last time I was out this way, I had nothing but contempt for the late-of-Disneyland hayseeds laughing and posing at Arlington.
For what it was worth, I wasn’t laughing today. I was very solemn and serious in my undertaking, even as I was splaying myself around and across the grave of a deceased governor and Vice President of the United States, trying to capture on my iPhone camera a token of our meeting for the ages.
I was getting many curious looks from the many people who were circulating in and around the cemetery on this particularly active Wednesday morning. My behavior looked curious at best, disrespectful at worst, and possibly an ostensible manifestation of mental illness. Admittedly, I felt the heat from the collective stink-eye coming at me from all directions, which only increased the urgency on me to do my job and be on my way.
Privately, I was very pleased with myself, after all was said and done. I’d worked it left and right until I got the proper shot. I tried different angles, I checked the camera roll, went back and tried again, and again and again. By the time I was finished, I was content in the knowledge that I’d done everything. I was persistent, and painstaking, and didn’t give up until I had precisely what I needed and what I wanted, and properly captured this moment for posterity.
I wanted a cold beverage to toast my success, but my first order of business was to share this triumph with my partners in the nearly decade-long enterprise that has been Veeps. Spiro was the linchpin of the entire franchise—he was the seed eighteen years ago that would inspire the precursor fifteen years ago, and the bedrock on which we built first the book and then the movie, which have occupied such a large portion of the last ten years of our lives (Wayne, Brett, and I, with the book) and eight years for the movie, after Mike joined us. Just as I couldn’t avoid this pilgrimage on this vacation, I owed it to all of them to share this triumph with them immediately. Off it went…
Yes, the clutter was a little dispiriting, but as I noted above, I had a few theories why. But it was also on a par with the disregard that’s often been accorded the office, if you believe one of the central theses of our book and movie. Hell, look how he left the campsite after he went away in disgrace. You certainly couldn’t take the American people to task for not assisting with the upkeep of one of his last home in this country, when he’d apparently had so little regard for the one we had all paid for.
Brett and Mike texted their huzzahs right away, and Wayne chimed in a few moments later. With a quiet triumphal glow, I made my way back to East Baltimore, content that I’d accomplished one of the many culminating achievements in the long history of the Veeps project.
It’s only human wanting to watch game film after a big win, though. Back at the hotel, I uploaded my pictures to my laptop. I wanted to see them on a bigger screen, just to show what I had accomplished, writ large.
I remembered a fleeting thought I’d had back at Dulaney, but had dismissed as I was having to find shade in the bright April sun to look at my photos. I was still feeling the heat of the eyes upon me from those in my immediate proximity when I was unreservedly recording my meeting with history a few moments earlier. I felt like I’d overstayed my welcome in the Garden of the Last Supper (and I still wanted to find Johnny Unitas). It was a concern that I quickly lost and did not follow up on again.
But it was an important detail. It was an important detail that eluded me until, all proud of myself, I looked at the picture again…
We have a problem.
Cue the inverse wolf whistle; the sound of my previously tumescent self deflating.
I had posed with the wrong Agnew. I had found his parents’ grave. In my excitement, I didn’t even look at the dates. I did note the name and that should have stopped me there—he was born Spiro Theodore—Spiro T. His father was Theodore Spiros—Theodore S.
This was complicating. Especially since I had already released my news into the wild, to Wayne, Brett, and Mike.
I had to go back. There was no way around it. This was an epic battlefield error that I would never live down, even if the knowledge never went past the four of us.
Back to Timonium I went.
There were a few practical considerations here that were concerning me at this point. First, how wrong was the GPS? Was Spiro’s grave even close to where I’d been, or had the website I consulted found his parents’ grave and assumed (as I did) that it was his? How much time could I devote to recanvassing the Garden of the Last Supper looking for the other Agnew headstone?
The second issue was that I’d left the flowers there. That in itself presented two concerns: It was very windy. Would they still be there? If they weren’t, the reshoot wouldn’t be the same. I needed flowers. I’d have to circle back to Radebaugh’s, which would further devour the afternoon, and also be a bit awkward (if not vaguely creepy) explaining why I was back a second time in three hours for loose Gerber Daisies to fob off as Black-Eyed Susans for whatever cryptic tableau I was working.
If they were still there, though…well, this was a little dicier. Now we were getting into weightier territory. Was it inappropriate to withdraw flowers left on the grave of the deceased if they were erroneously placed on the wrong interment? Certainly it would be if I didn’t want to buy flowers to honor another departed and instead simply appropriated flowers someone had purchased, brought, and left for their dearly departed. That wasn’t the case here, though. Sure, I didn’t want to buy more flowers to honor the departed I meant to honor in the first place. But, this was simply mistaken identity. An honest mistake that no one would raise an eyebrow at. Right?
Or isn’t the right thing to do to go back to Radebaugh’s and buy another bouquet, out of respect to Agnew the Elder, and no matter the inconvenience to my afternoon?
It’s a discussion that I may need to have at some other time—with clergy of my choice, or calling into Philosophy Talk on NPR; maybe even with St. Peter—and possibly with Spiro and his father, too, if they get word of my impending arrival.
And it’s a discussion I will still need to have, because I didn’t go back to Radebaugh’s and the flowers had not blown away. I found Spiro & Elinor’s actual grave was virtually where the Find-A-Grave GPS said it would be—but three feet away. Two stones over.
With a respectful nod of apology, I grabbed the flowers from Theodore Spiros’ and Margaret Marian’s grave and passed them over to their son and daughter-in-law. They’d surely understand.
I had a lightning-round second photo shoot. The first round was an excellent trial run, as it turned out. I was much more comfortable with my technique this time (even as I felt the heat to accomplish my do-over as quickly as possible lest my chance be nabbed me by unforeseen circumstances, or the ground open up and swallow me whole for violating cemetery decorum).
I double- and triple-checked the photos in the car, satisfied that I’d done what I needed to do with my mulligan. While my triumph wasn’t quite as gratifying as it had been ninety minutes earlier, I had the satisfaction of knowing with absolute certainty that I’d done my job this time. Surely like many an historian before me, my ethical questions about fulfilling my quest could be answered another day, in another place.